(Reprinted with permission of the author. Originally
appeared in World
This is a story about 2 men and an airplane. All three are famous in their
own right. Many stories have been written about each individually. Much more
should be told here than I will ever know, and certainly more than I will ever
be able to tell in the limited space we have here. The men are Jerry Billing
and Cliff Robertson. The airplane is the Spitfire.
The Spitfire is what the Brits believe is the best fighter of W.W.II. ( The
Yanks, of course, have a different opinion about that, something about a
Mustang, I think) The Spitfire was the most famous of the British fighters and
the most successful as well. They entered service early in the late 30's and
were continuously improved through model changes until the end of the war. The
Spit had 2 very distinctive features. The first was her Rolls Royce Merlin
engine. This gives the Spit her unique sound. The second was her elliptical
wing. This gives her a silhouette of her own. Despite the scarcity of the
Spitfire, these two attributes make the Spitfire one of the most recognizable
The Spitfire in our story, MK923, is a special one. Of the roughly 12 left
flying. This airplane was a participant in the D-day invasion at Normandy. Few
of the Spits that remain have combat history and most flying today were
manufactured from parts. After the War this airplane was sold to the Dutch and
flew combat missions in the Dutch East Indies for a short while. Later the
Belgian Air Force acquired the airplane and she served several roles until
starring in a movie "The Longest Day" in 1961.
About this same time a young Yankee actor was in Britain to film another
movie, "633 Squadron, Mosquito Bomber." This actor, Cliff Robertson,
already an accomplished aviator and aviation enthusiast, learned that the Spit
was for sale and purchased her. Cliff had the airplane disassembled and air
freighted back to California. There the airplane resided as the guest of
another well known aviator, Frank Tallman.
In 1972 the Spit was to be flown to Chicago for some major
maintenance. This is where the third chap enters our story. Cliff found the
most qualified Spit pilot he could to fly this mission. His name was Jerry
Billing. To tell Jerry's story we must roll back time a bit.
Jerry Billing, a Canadian from Windsor Ontario left his homeland in 1941
and went off to Europe to defend England. Soon after he was assigned to #19
Squadron, Royal Air Force, the first to fly the Supermarine Spitfire. Jerry's
resume reads like a war novel, two tours in W.W.II, RCAF Jet Formation Team,
De Haviland Test Pilot, two time member of the Caterpillar Club, flew over
Normandy on D-day, RAF Escape society, shot down three times, escaped, and has
several aerial victories to his credit. The list goes on and on. That was 1942
this is 1996, You do the math...
Cliff Robertson is no stranger to the aviation community. He was the
driving force behind obtaining Standard Airworthiness registration for the
Tiger Moth. "It took over 10 years to do it." I could tell that
Cliff was proud of that accomplishment. He should be. He owns, in addition to
the Spitfire, a Stampe, a ME-108, a Grob Aster, and a B-58 Baron. All the
airplanes are for fun except for the Baron which he uses to "fly out to
La La Land, say the words, take the money and fly away like a thief in the
night." Cliff makes it quite clear he has never lived in Los Angeles and
never intends to.
Cliff tells about being interviewed one time. The interviewer asked if the
biggest thrill in his life was winning and Emmy or and Oscar, Cliff replied,
"Neither, it was going above 26,000 ft in a glider." The interviewer
asked, "What?" "You would not understand." Cliff said.
Cliff told me "Jerry has more Spitfire time than any other human being
alive." Jerry was a logical choice to fly the plane and right from the
start was, "totally dedicated to the airplane. He won't let people move
the airplane without gloves." This began their long relationship that has
continued until now.
Jerry says, "Can you believe it, he just gave me this airplane for 22
1/2 years and let me do with it as I pleased. It's just been wonderful. It is
such a graceful airplane, It won't stall or flick out like a Mustang."
Jerry says that the Spit is a very docile airplane. Because of that you can,
"Do an airshow and stay on stage at all times." But the best part
for Jerry has been the people, "The people just love the airplane, It is
living history you know."
Jerry decided that last year would be his last. In a note, Jerry wrote,
"After 23 1/2 years flying low level airshows in Cliff's Spit, and 52 1/2
years flying Spitfires I believe it's a good time to leave the airplane in one
piece." I asked Jerry if he would continue flying, "I intend to fly
as long as can get in the Champ. It is parked outside the back door. I don't
have to call the tower and I don't need a clearance from anybody." But,
as for the Spit, "It is just time, I think we done pretty good, eh."
I do too.
Cliff told me the decision to hang it up was "All Jerry's."
Because Jerry has decided to retire, Cliff has reluctantly decided that if the
right offer is made, he would be willing to part with the plane. Her new home
will be carefully chosen. Cliff says, "I am not going to sell it to some
playboy who will go out and prang it." Till she is sold the Spit will
remain at the Kalamazoo Air Zoo where it has been displayed for several years.
Many of us would be sad or depressed about hanging up the headset and
others might wait one season too long instead of retiring one season early.
Jerry focuses only on how fortunate he has been to have flown such a great
airplane, for such a great guy, for so long. It says volumes about him.
Jerry has written a book, "Knight among Knaves in Their
Spitfires." It is about his life the War and flying the spits. In the
book Jerry writes, "I would not give 20 minutes flying aerobatics in a
Spitfire for 10,000 hours flying an airliner."
In 1988 Jerry was made an "Honourary citizen of France" and in
1995 he was Knighted by the President of France for his contributions to that
country during the Second World War.
I have never been a gambler, but I would bet real long odds that in the
year 2040 there will not be any 70 year old Gulf War veterans flying airshows
in civilian F-16's or Stealth Fighters. Any takers?
This material is the property of the author or the publisher. Any
reproduction without the written permission of the author or the publisher is
to go to a website devoted to Jerry Billing